On March 22, 1876, The New York Times reported that a hot new technology, the telephone – not Bell’s, but a device invented by a German – might mean that people would never have to leave their homes again.
“The telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches,” The Times said.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way.
But 138 years later, the idea that technology is encouraging us to retreat from the real world, even as we connect elsewhere, does not seem so far-fetched. After all, you can get just about anything from your couch these days, including music and spiritual guidance. All you need is a smartphone.
There is no denying that today’s technology-powered hyper-convenience can be a wonderful thing. The other week I holed up with my smartphone, apps and online services to see how far I could go without leaving home. The short answer: very far.
AmazonFresh dropped groceries at my doorstep. EBay delivered some gardening tools. I got a burrito, granola bars, locally roasted coffee, and wine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I paid the person who walks my dog, Pixel, using a mobile payment app. I deposited checks with my smartphone camera. I had my laundry done using Washio, an app. Someone picked up my clothes and dropped them off, folded and pressed, 24 hours later.
What could be easier? But then I began wondering about the price of all this convenience. Before Washio came along, I took my clothes to the small dry cleaner a block from my house. The app saved three minutes of my time. But in the process, it cut a neighborhood business out of the economic equation. And, in a way, I had cut off myself from the inconvenient, maddening, but all-too-necessary messiness of human interaction.
None of this is news. One of the paradoxes of technology is that it connects us and isolates us at the same time. We get more, faster, but cannot help wondering if that is always better. We have more to read and more to watch, more to learn and more to transact, more friends and more followers – and yet we can somehow feel less satisfied.
“On the one hand, there is so much that we are obviously losing by taking shortcuts and moving faster; we lose a kind of solitude and slowness,” said James Gleick, the author of “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.” “And you could also feel guilty that certain types of human contact disappear. You used to have accidental contact with all sorts of people that were part of your economic life.”
But in the end, Gleick said, the pros of our technology-driven lives outweigh the cons.
“For every dry cleaner who you’re now cutting yourself off from, you’re potentially capable of being in touch with thousands of people who are physically far away,” he told me.
Not that his words made me feel any better about cutting out a neighborhood business.
Many people – and young people, in particular – do not seem to worry about these pros and cons that much. Friends who used to hang out together now “hang out” together online. Conversations that used to take place face to face now happen on WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook – on and on. And the generation coming of age online is perfectly happy with this setup.
Sheryl Connelly, the Ford Motor Co’s manager of global consumer trends, told me what many parents already know: For teenagers, the smartphone is paramount, not only as a gateway to the world but also as a social marker. The teenage quest for a car has been replaced with the need for a smartphone. It is easier to communicate via smartphone than to get in a car to drive somewhere to actually talk to someone in person.
And for young people, the same is increasingly true for commerce. They see transactions as just that – transactions – with little or no need for direct human contact.
Danah Boyd, author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” says that as these trends gather pace, society will change in new and surprising ways. Today’s teenagers – like teenagers before them – will grow up thinking there is no other way to live.
There are those in Silicon Valley who seem to take glee in the idea that one day all of us could be permanently homebound if we choose to be. And – who knows – they might be right. But there will be trade-offs, for better and worse. And as The Times report of 1876 suggests, the future may look very different than we think.